Does an expat assignment really help your career progression?

20 April 2017

The first impressions are often very glamorous. You’ve been chosen for a global assignment. You’re off travelling to exotic places, you’re fulfilling an important strategic role for the company, and they are clearly investing a lot of money in ensuring that your assignment is a success. You are the envy of your peer group, and clearly destined for a glittering career. 

Or that’s how it seems. The voice of experience will, however, tell you not to assume anything. A global assignment can be hugely beneficial to your career – but it could equally damage your career prospects. Knowing how going abroad can affect your career either way will help you make sure that it is a springboard to better things.

4 ways in which it can help (if you’re careful)

expat leaving others behind | FIDI blog

You will gain access to the ‘international club’

Tomorrow’s organizations are more global than ever. They span cultures and need to understand the bigger world picture. So the CEOs of tomorrow are going to be global citizens. Experience of other cultures is essential if you want to be considered for a senior role in a global organization. Add a dash of cosmopolitan personality style to your big-picture global thinking and you become perfect future executive material.

The statistics on the nationalities of top CEOs bear this out. A survey by Odgers Berndtson, a global executive search firm, shows that the number of foreign-born CEOs of companies in the UK’s FTSE 100 has doubled to 40% since 2006. While these are not necessarily expats, the implication is that international diversity is valued; if this trend continues, multi-cultural overseas experience is clearly going to help aspiring CEOs of the future.

You will learn new skills

A global assignment will not just prove your multi-cultural credentials., You will be exposed (sometimes painfully exposed) to different ways of working, thinking and doing. The expats who gain most from their time abroad absorb this information and use it in their own development. This works on many levels: expats will learn about different technologies, as well as different management styles and business practices. They will gain experience of different kinds of markets, business models and customer types. The trick, of course, is to use it on your return – which is not always as easy as it seems.

A chance to prove your worth

One of the key career benefits of a move abroad has nothing to do with the destination at all. Given the expense of sending people abroad, companies will often send one (or a small number of people) with the necessary skills and aptitude to get an important job done. So the pressure is on. There is nowhere to hide. But ambitious people thrive on pressure because it gives them a chance to prove themselves. Get it right and the credit will be yours. 

Make a big splash as an expat | FIDI blog

Open new opportunities

Companies invest millions every year in global assignments – yet it is well documented that retention rates amongst returning expats is often low. However, the company’s loss may be your gain. With a global assignment behind you, you are able to consider career opportunities that would previously have been unthinkable. Not only have you proved that you can work in the host country where you were posted, but you have shown your flexibility and your ability to fit in with a new and different culture and working practices. In short, you are no longer limited to your home nation. Spread your wings and fly...

4 ways in which it may damage your career (if you’re not careful)

Blotting your copy book

The main risk of a global assignment is that it might go wrong. Even worse, it may not be your fault. You are stepping into the unknown. Will you be able to cope? Will your family be able to cope? Will you simply get unlucky? Despite your efforts to prepare, you need to accept that some global assignments are not considered successful and some of that blame – however unjustly – may stick to you. Imagine the interview question: “So why did you return from Hong Kong after just 6 months?” Of course you will take every precaution to avoid this scenario, but it is a potential black mark on the CV.

Reverse culture shock

Your assignment may have been a roaring success. But with repatriation comes a new set of challenges which can often be damaging to your career. Is there a role waiting for you back home that uses your new-found skills – and matches your new-found expectations? It’s unlikely. See our post Returning Expats: how to ensure a soft landing for more details on why it happens and what to do about it.

Not quite fitting in | FIDI blog

Are you falling out of touch?

If you have travelled from an HQ to a subsidiary, the chances are that, for all its exoticism, it has taken you further from the leading edge. Geographic outposts may often be behind the curve in terms of technology and management thinking. You may be battling with systems that were long since replaced back home. How are you going to improve your modern CV by spending time in the past, while the people who stayed behind got a chance to work on the latest ideas and tech? The truth is they didn’t stay behind; they moved ahead.

Out of the spotlight…

The crucial point is that the decisions to promote are typically made at the global headquarters. That’s where the movers and shakers are. And if you’re on a global assignment, it’s where you are not. Sebastian Reiche of the IESE Business School reports a study that shows that global assignments can be damaging to a career because time spent overseas is time spent away from the company HQ and expats are frequently not in contention for the key promotions because they are simply not there. Out of sight, out of mind, it seems.

The value of an expat career perspective

Gauging the effect of a global assignment is difficult. It may be good for your career or it may knock you back. However, the experience will undoubtedly benefit you in the way you assess your career options. Working in a different environment will help you to appreciate the career possibilities open to you. And if you don’t do it, you’ll probably wonder all your life what would have happened if you did…

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